Radio Days: Tuning in to Western Pennsylvania's radio history

The last of a four-part series



Counties apart but standing shoulder to shoulder in spirit, Mel Check and Rich Harris are passionate about preserving a part of Western Pennsylvania's rich radio heritage.

Mr. Harris and his nonprofit National Museum of Broadcasting organization hope to create a brick-and-mortar facility, a place to rebuild the old Wilkinsburg garage where Frank Conrad played music that could be plucked from the airwaves by anyone with a crystal radio set.

In East Brady, Clarion County, Mr. Check has turned his own detached garage into a free-to-the-public shrine featuring more than 1,100 radios.

Each knows a dazzling amount of information about the history of radio, and given a box full of MacGyver-ish odds and ends, could no doubt create working sets in no time flat.

There is a big difference in each approach, however. Mr. Check concentrates on collecting vintage radios, some working, many not, and their aesthetic beauty.

Mr. Harris takes an educational tack. He envisions a day when a room full of school children will make their own crystal sets, using nothing more than an empty oatmeal box cylinder, a coil of wire, headphones and the crystal.

Fiddling with an Etsy-esque crystal set on the porch of a community center in Forest Hills -- near the site of some of KDKA-AM's earliest broadcasts -- Mr. Harris said, "It really was something a lot of kids and people who were interested in technology back in the day could build.

"You could hear Morse code, you could hear regular radio programs."

His group's collection includes early radios, both crystal and tube sets, as well as vintage items such as the same kind of soapbox and candlestick telephone Conrad used in his homemade studio. As for the garage itself, it was dismantled and the Wilkinsburg site is now a fast food parking lot.

The 25,000-plus bricks have been in storage since 2001 at an undisclosed facility, thanks to a $50,000 private donation from New York businessman Ralph Guild, as well as funds from Pittsburgh native Mark Cuban and the Paul and Dina W. Block Foundation in Toledo, Ohio.

Mr. Harris said the annual storage fee recently increased, prompting the group to accelerate not just fundraising but settling on a plan to find a permanent home in the East suburbs for the museum. Although he is hopeful, he said, "It's been gathering dust for so long, and you wonder if it will ever be reconstructed and open to the public."

Michael Young, senior vice president and market manager, CBS Radio Pittsburgh, said "We are very supportive of preserving the history of the radio station and working with [Mr. Harris], our thoughts were that it might not be as practical having it in that location.

"We thought it might be better off in some historic museum where there already is a lot of floor traffic."

The Heinz History Center in the Strip has a radio section in its "Pittsburgh: A Tradition of Innovation" exhibit.

"But there are no plans for a larger, permanent exhibit," according to Brady Smith, the center's communications manager.

If anyone knows the nuts, bolts and wires of what makes radio tick, it's Mr. Check. He was chief engineer at KDKA Radio for 34 years and also worked at Clarion University for five. He still is involved in broadcasting local sporting events, as are other members of the Check family.

Son Brian works at KDKA-TV full time as a maintenance tech. He also works on pro hockey, baseball and football broadcasts.

Another son, Doran, is a math teacher at Plum High School. He is involved on the engineering end for Pirates Radio network, visitor hockey broadcasts and supplies equipment and works at functions for Macy's and Dick's Sporting Goods.

Daughter Cindy Check Boyden is home engineer for Penguins hockey games and often works on visiting radio broadcasts. She also books engineers for about 1,200 baseball and hockey broadcasters in other cities.

Mel Check works home and road broadcasts for Pitt football as well as Pirates and Philadelphia Phillies spring training. Pat, his wife of 52 years, occasionally helps out.

Across a leaf-strewn driveway overlooking the Allegheny River, Mr. Check's museum is stuffed with large, elaborate consoles, tiny promotional radios such as the ones resembling Campbell's Soup cans and a colorful variety of memorabilia and promotional bric-a-brac.

"Most of them I would not turn on without checking them first," he said, pointing out that some of the larger consoles drawing on "massive power supplies" have electronic innards that dry out over time and tend to blow up after decades of disuse.

There are some truly beautiful pieces, cabinets inlaid with wood and metal, spider-web-fragile lattice over now-silent speakers. Two smaller radios made from Bakelite, an early heat-resistant plastic, are unusual finds.

A Freeport native, Mr. Check said he has fond childhood memories of radio, beginning with Friday evening trips to his grandmother's house: "She would bake bread and KDKA would be on. We'd listen to Ed and Wendy King and I would stuff my face full of bread."

He said he hopes visits to his little museum evoke similar, warm memories. It's open 1-6 p.m. Sundays through November and reopens in April. Some groups bring brown bag lunches to dine on the lawn and enjoy the river view.

Visits also can be arranged by calling 724-526-5202.

It was easy to feel transported when Mr. Check switched on a massive old console set, gently turning the dial to first pick up what sounded like monks chanting, then a radio drama, in Spanish.

"What a sound," he said. "I don't know anything that sounds like that."

 


Maria Sciullo: msciullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciulloPG.

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